The benefits promised by technology have always lagged a bit behind in rural America. While most urban areas have a profusion of choices for broadband access, people in many parts of Montana are lucky if they have even a single option for high-speed internet.

It doesn’t have to be this way — the technology exists that would open up new opportunities to rural Americans who now have limited broadband access. But as often happens, technology moves at a much faster pace than regulators. Today, one of the biggest impediments to increasing rural broadband access is not cost or distance — it’s federal policy. This has to change.

The technological disadvantages that come with limited access to broadband are obvious. It hurts students who have fewer options for learning, especially today when 70 percent of teachers assign homework and research projects that require a broadband connection, according to a recent study.

Less broadband access in rural America makes it harder to start and run businesses. And it limits the options available for job seekers in rural markets. It even has an effect on our health, as the availability of telemedicine has been shown to improve outcomes for patients.

I could go on, but the benefits of increased broadband availability in rural areas have been well detailed elsewhere.

What’s not so obvious is why this problem persists some 30 years after the proliferation of the internet and through several generations of broadband technologies.

One significant factor is that federal policy at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limits the type of broadband technology that is available for rural areas.

Today, the technology exists to utilize an unused portion of the telecommunications spectrum to serve broadband to rural communities. Known as “TV white space,” this spectrum already reaches 80 percent of the underserved rural population. Unfortunately, the FCC has not enacted the necessary regulations that would allow TV white space to be used at a meaningful scale.

Not only is this technology mature and available for use, it’s also affordable. A study conducted by Microsoft estimates that using TV white space to deliver broadband internet in rural areas would be 80 percent cheaper than fiber optic cable, and 50 percent cheaper than LTE wireless technology.

The only thing holding up the availability of broadband delivery via TV white space is for the federal regulations to catch up.

This is a perfect opportunity for Washington, D.C., to contradict their usual lethargic reputation. By updating federal regulations regarding the telecommunications spectrum, the FCC can help introduce a new technology where it’s needed most. And at the same time unlock new opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Montanans and millions of rural Americans.

At U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’s Montana High Tech Jobs Summit at the beginning of October, speaker after speaker identified the lack of high-speed internet access as a major impediment to Montana’s burgeoning technology economy. For all those participants, and the thousands of other Montanans who care about improving broadband access, here’s your chance. Contact the FCC and let them know you support modernizing the telecomm spectrum regulations to allow for the utilization of TV white space.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, represents House District 45 in the Montana Legislature. He is chairman of the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee.

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